I don’t feel guilty and tortured about my abortion. Or rather, my abortions. There, I said it.
For a small segment of women—and the number is small, by any reasonably scientific account—abortion is indeed a tragedy, a trauma with long-lasting reverberations. But I want to tell a different story, the more common yet strangely hidden one, which is that I don’t feel guilty and tortured about my abortion. Or rather, my abortions. There, I said it.
“Abortion. We need to talk about it,” Pollitt beseeches in Pro. “We need to talk about it differently. Not as something we all agree is a bad thing about which we shake our heads sadly and then debate its precise degree of badness, preening ourselves on our judiciousness and moral seriousness as we argue about this or that restriction on this or that kind of woman. We need to talk about ending a pregnancy as a common, even normal, event in the reproductive lives of women.”
How normal? Nearly one in three American women will have terminated a pregnancy by age 45, and six in 10 abortions are performed on women who are already mothers. They’re not—we’re not—”other.” Those numbers are from Pro, and when I call it “revelatory,” I want to add, oddly so. You can’t live in the abortion-is-murder culture for all of your adult life and not have it affect you, even if you’re pro-choice. So while I already knew much of the basic information Pollitt imparts, I’d “forgotten” some facts, and lost track of how the facts informed my pro-choice convictions.
I came of age in the ’70s—I was eight when Roe v. Wade was decided—a time when pro-choice advocates didn’t feel forced to talk exclusively about the other kinds of medical care Planned Parenthood clinics provided: the breast cancer screens, the contraception, the treatment for sexually transmitted diseases. I grew up in that short era when, Pollitt writes, “you were not automatically a callous, superficial person if you felt nothing but relief that you were no longer pregnant, and you were not a monster if you said so.”
Am I really ashamed—and, if so, what is it exactly that I’m ashamed of?
In several meetings at work in which this essay was discussed, I noticed that none of the other editors in the room, all of them pro-choice, could bring themselves to utter the word abortion; it was “Laurie’s pro piece,” or her “memoir.” I know that my colleagues, many of whom are my friends, were just trying to be kind when they referred to my “reproductive rights” story. The truth is, I felt uncomfortable saying it out loud too. Abortion is a conversational third rail, women’s dirtiest dirty laundry, to mix metaphors. Because the other thing about living in a political culture where a single-cell zygote is constantly being called a “person” is that there is a penumbra of shame surrounding abortion. For myself, however, I wonder: Am I really ashamed—and, if so, what is it exactly that I’m ashamed of?
The first one was the “acceptable” one—the one that most people would understand, at least those who aren’t categorically opposed to abortion. Or would they? I found out I was pregnant in the fall of my sophomore year at Northwestern University, in a suburb of Chicago; Pollitt cites a Gallup study that, collating the results of a variety of polls, concluded that 42 percent of Americans approve of abortion so that a teenager can continue her education. That then means that more than half of Americans don’t approve of what I did, not to mention that at 19 I barely qualified as a teenager. (And somehow I suspect these respondents were thinking about girls finishing high school, not college.)
Some might put me in the category of women who’ve terminated pregnancies to further their careers; only a rock-bottom 25 percent of Americans approve of that. Seventy-nine percent would permit abortion when rape or incest are the cause of pregnancy; if it’s about protecting the physical health of the mother, 83 percent say abortion is okay.
But these figures alone can be misleading, and Pollitt does an excellent job of unpacking them and showing the contradictions in our views, as well as the limits to what surveys can tell us about the decisions Americans make for themselves (an old abortion joke, according to Pollitt: “When should abortion be legal? Rape, incest, and me”), or even which policies they’d support given the chance. One piquant example from Pro: More than a third of those who call themselves “pro-life” also say women should have the right to choose abortion.
The book is directed at this ambivalent set, what Pollitt calls the “muddled middle,” and it’s not that she doesn’t understand that people have opposing impulses about important matters. The problem, she writes, is that “While you in the muddled middle dither and worry and fret and vent—yes, abortion should be legal, sort of, but it’s wrong, sort of, and it shouldn’t be too easy, and it shouldn’t be too late, and the woman needs to think about it more, but also not wait too long, and most of all she should not be such an irresponsible slut—a radical movement against abortion rights has gathered enormous speed.” In 2000, according to the Guttmacher Institute, about one third of American women lived in states “hostile” to abortion. Today, more than half of us do.
The summer had been an idyll—R. and I playing house in a shabby duplex on Chittenden Avenue. My freshman year in college, I’d missed him desperately. I knew no one at Northwestern when I arrived, and I don’t think I’ve ever longed for anyone so much as I did him. He had sandy brown hair and beautiful strong hands; he could play any instrument by ear and sang Peter Frampton’s “Baby I Love Your Way” to me on his guitar. His three older sisters had left home by the time we started dating, and until he left for college he lived alone with his mother, who was jealous of me at first but came around. He was probably the best writer in our giant factory of a public high school, so good that he was once wrongly accused of plagiarism because an English paper he’d written was too perceptive and eloquent. How could a 16-year-old write that? He was talented at science and math, too, but missed a lot of school—his mother struggled—and our physics teacher told my mother, a guidance counselor at our school, that R. wasn’t “good enough” for me. R. and a friend were obsessed with building a submarine and penciled detailed plans for it in a black notebook. It was to be fashioned from a large metal barrel, in which they’d sink down into the dark waters of Lake Erie. I always believed they’d pull it off, and I was disappointed when they didn’t. R. wanted to be an artist, a painter.
That summer, we were using the diaphragm. I’d decided to go off the Pill during my freshman year at college because we were together only every couple of months. One or the other of us would take the eight-hour ride on the Greyhound bus—when the visits ended in the greasy yellow light of the bus station, I’d want to die. Suspicion of oral contraceptives was in the air in the 1970s and ’80s (perhaps the extra hormones caused disease down the line), and I’d absorbed it. I thought, Why mess with my body’s natural environment when I’m not having regular sex?
So…that summer. I remember being on the bedroom floor, dim light filtering through the ugly brown curtains of the furnished rental. We started having the most intense sex, and we just didn’t pause to fumble around for the diaphragm. To be clear, even if I thought of it, I didn’t want to pause. My sexual desire for R. was overwhelming, mind-altering—one of the gifts of my life.
When I found out I was pregnant back in the drudgery of Northwestern, I called him, very upset, shaken by the power of my body, by how primal it felt to be pregnant. Shaken by the gravity of what we’d done. Could we have a baby together? Would we? I wanted to be with R. so much. This was my ticket. We could get married! But though we talked about having the baby, neither of us really considered it. He was going to be an artist. I was going to get my degree, do something ambitious with my life, even if it meant being without R. It was him that I really wanted, anyway, not a baby.
It was raining the day I went for the abortion. R. didn’t come with me to the appointment; my dear roommate Jobie took me to the clinic. I think she accompanied me, that is. My memories are hazy at best from that time 30 years ago. This was before short-acting anesthetics were used during D&Cs, so I was awake for it, and it was jarring to feel the tugging inside me and wonder whether I’d see blood or tissue, or what. I didn’t see anything, again, at least as I remember.
I don’t remember the aftermath of the abortion at all, but I’m told I was crying and sad. That night I met a girl named Lisa, whom I now talk to or see nearly every day. (We’ve almost always lived in the same city, and though it doesn’t feel like we planned it that way, I’m a believer in the power of the unconscious.) She’s the one who tells me I was weepy that night. I’m sure I wished R. had been with me.
Lisa says that though she felt bad for me, she remembers with tenderness sitting on the single bed in my dorm room, listening. She thought, This girl is sharing a major emotional event with me; she is going to be my best friend for the rest of my life. She insists that she knew it that night. I love to hear her say it.
In the decade or so after my abortion, I graduated from college with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in journalism, which, among other things, had required that I live in a hovel by the beach as an intern for The Miami Herald, as well as work out of my school’s Washington bureau covering the nation’s capitol for a small paper in Mississippi. For my first real job, as a reporter for a medical newspaper, I traveled around the country and world—including, and though I can hardly believe this now, attending the first-ever international conference on AIDS. And I wrote a heavily researched book about health care for the poor, for which I spent three years immersing myself in the lives of a multigenerational family in Chicago, spinning off to report on so-called Medicaid mills, the politics of organ transplant, the history of urban hospitals, and so on.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but I couldn’t, or even had I been independently wealthy and able to afford the finest child care, I wouldn’t have lived my twenties like this had I been a mother: way too much time away from home, and way too much mental space occupied by work to be the kind of mother I am and wanted to be. My mother always said, “Why be a mother if you’re not going to be around to raise them?” I took it to heart.
But framing it like this is ridiculous, anyway, because if I’d given birth at 20, I would have had to drop out of college, move back to my hometown, and get on government assistance—my parents likely would’ve helped some, but certainly nothing like full-time child care or full financial support. I don’t know what R. would have done; he wanted the abortion as much as I did.
I offer all this detail not to show that my abortion was “justified” because of the productive decade that followed, and not because I think what I did in my twenties was per se more useful to society than propagating the species (though to be honest, I think it was, however small the impact of my work), but because there seems to be this cultural fantasy that, as Pollitt puts it, “ill-timed pregnancy” is a bump easily absorbed, a hurdle easily surmounted. It’s as if, she writes, “bearing and raising children is something [women] should be ready to do at any moment.” If childbirth is compulsory, women’s sexuality is what “defines them,” she continues, “not their brains and gifts and individuality and character, and certainly not their wishes or their ambitions or their will.” Put another way, gender equality is a hollow concept if a woman can’t control her fertility except by refraining from sex.
Now is the time to say that I don’t think that I killed anyone when I had an abortion. Nine out of 10 abortions in this country, mine among them, occur during the first trimester; at eight weeks, a developing pregnancy is an embryo as opposed to a fetus, the size of a lima bean and not really distinguishable as a human. (“If all along abortion opponents had talked about ’embryonic rights,’ and ‘the embryo’s right to life’ I wonder if they would have gotten as far as they have,” Pollitt muses.)
By 12 weeks, it has become a fetus, 2 inches to 3 inches long, with features that are recognizably human. Yet by my lights, a fetus at this stage is not a person in any real sense of that word. It can’t live outside the womb; none of its organ systems is fully developed; and, most crucially, it’s not capable of conscious thought, since the cortical synapses don’t begin to form until the second trimester. The way I’ve always thought of it, in lay terms, is that I ended a potential life, not a life-life.
While some believe that abortion is murder, Pollitt argues that it’s actually only a sliver of the population, no matter their answers on surveys. Otherwise, far fewer people would approve of abortions in cases of rape and incest, or to protect the mother’s health. Even the most vehement opponents are slippery on the abortion-equals-murder formulation. If they really thought women who have abortions are killing children, why would they try to convince them that they’ll suffer emotional and/or physical harm from having one? When one commits a crime that seriously injures another, we don’t bother appealing to the perpetrator’s self-interest; the ethical injunction is sufficient in itself. We don’t say, as Pollitt writes, “Don’t beat your children—you’ll be lonely in old age.”
Sitting at Pollitt’s dining room table, which is stacked with books and papers, because this is where she likes to write, I tell her about the close call I had in my early thirties, the time that I might have had an abortion. By then I was dating the man who’d eventually become my husband—and the father of my two beloved girls. R. and I had broken up when I was 25, and now there was this new love, T., who adored me—for a good long while, at least. We were using condoms, but as had happened earlier, T. and I winged it one night, and I got pregnant.
This time I was far better situated—financially, professionally, and emotionally—but I wasn’t sure my relationship with T. would last, and I didn’t want to force the marriage decision. (He didn’t either.) But the choice was not mine in the end: I miscarried.
I do remember the conversation with Lisa in this case; I was relieved. Talk about narrative misdirection—I’d dodged a sperm. I wasn’t slutty and irresponsible! But what I failed to see then was that the miscarriage hadn’t erased the careless act of having sex without a condom. In fact, I didn’t realize how illogical I’d been back then until I recounted the story to Pollitt. “Show me the woman who hasn’t winged it,” she says. “No one feels guilty when they have sex without birth control and don’t get pregnant.” Pollitt, who is the mother of one child, a now 27-year-old daughter whom she had with her first husband, adds, “I conducted my entire first affair without contraception. By the time I got birth control, the relationship was over. Although I was 22 at the time, I was like some teenager who’s taken abstinence-only sex education and who has no real clue about what’s going on.”
I married T. at 35 and before my fortieth birthday had given birth to my two daughters, both promptly conceived when I deliberately stopped using contraception. Yet one more thing it’s easy to forget in twenty-first-century America is that most women get pregnant fairly easily throughout their thirties. That truth has gotten occluded because stories of infertility are so disturbing, and because what woman of a certain age hasn’t gone through the agonizing IVF process step-by-step, either herself or with a friend? The lack of awareness is also the product of shockingly antiquated, oft-promulgated data that wrongly suggest the ability to get pregnant plummets at 35. (There was an excellent exposé on this subject last year in The Atlantic, written by a psychology professor named Jean Twenge.)
Aside from when I was pregnant, I used the reliable Pill during my thirties, but sometime after I turned 40 I decided to give it a rest. As new parents, and longtime partners, T. and I weren’t having sex as frequently as we had before. And while I know that there is no good evidence that hormonal contraceptives are detrimental taken long term, or past 40, I just felt, as I did at other junctures in my life, Why take extra hormones if you don’t have to? So my husband and I switched to condoms, and as time went on I just assumed I couldn’t get pregnant anymore. I mean, nobody gets pregnant at 44 without petri dishes and surrogates and donated eggs, right? So once again I experienced what public-health types call “real use contraceptive failure”: We didn’t use a condom, and I got pregnant.
What a feckless idiot, you’re thinking. And that’s what I thought, and to an extent still think, of myself. Not one, not two, but three unintended pregnancies. I’m the highly educated daughter of a Planned Parenthood clinic volunteer, for God’s sake—my septuagenarian mother’s still out there, doing her thing—and I can’t manage to use contraception faithfully, especially when I should have known by then that I was very fertile?
This is the truth the best as I can tell it: The times when my husband and I were having the kind of sex that I’d had with R.—the kind where you lose self-consciousness and become all mouth and skin and where does he stop and I begin—had become less frequent. I missed that, both the physical ecstasy and the connection to him. As for T., he just missed sex, any kind of sex with me, period. So when it was going well, when we were feeling it, I didn’t want to stop. “It’s okay, we’ll be fine,” I told T. He was always more cautious than me about almost everything, but he didn’t stop us either.
That is what happened the three times I accidentally got pregnant: I chose the immediacy of sexual pleasure and emotional intimacy over worrying about the potential consequences. When I think about the fact that poor women have a higher rate of unintended pregnancy (and thus abortion and childbirth) than women further up the economic ladder, this is what I think about: If you’re working a meaningless job for $7.25 per hour while worrying about paying the rent, whether your kids are getting enough love and guidance, and what in hell you can do to get out of this bind—it’s hard not to grab sweetness when and where you can. I felt similarly when I spent those years on the West Side of Chicago researching my first book; one member of the family had a destructive coke habit, and repeatedly it occurred to me that had my life been equally hard, with so little to look forward to, I might have been just like him. Yes, I knew he was hurting people, that he could have, should have tried to take better care of those he loved, but I empathized with his hunger to get high, to escape the grinding dullness.
“We’re not dealing with trying to get people to wear seat belts,” says Corinne Rocca, PhD, an epidemiologist who studies abortion. “We’re talking about sexual behavior, which is connected to intimacy, to relationships, connected to one of the most fundamental biologic drives there is.” Which is why, of course, just-the-facts health education—devoid of social and emotional context—often has depressingly minimal impact, whether directed to a high school drop-out or someone who has multiple degrees.
With a team of fellow scientists at University of California, San Francisco, Rocca is conducting one of the first rigorous studies about the emotional aftermath of abortion. The researchers are following three groups of several hundred women each over five years: One group had first-trimester abortions; another, predominately second-trimester abortions; and the last is made up of women who came to a clinic too late to qualify for the procedure and gave birth. (The third is a control group of sorts and improves on earlier work that unfairly compared women who had abortions to women who had babies they wanted or who suffered miscarriages.)
One of the first papers Rocca and her colleagues published was based on interviews done one week postabortion. “Relief was far and away the most commonly reported response,” she tells me, though she adds that women felt a range of positive and negative emotions. Whatever they felt, 95 percent of the subjects who’d had an abortion told surveyors they believed it was the right decision. The UCSF group has submitted another study for publication tracking the same sample three years out, and while Rocca could not comment on its particulars, she told me, “We do not find emerging regret up to three years.”
The ongoing project was in part inspired by the regret-relief debate between abortion opponents and supporters, and to address that directly, a UCSF sociologist, Katrina Kimport, PhD, conducted lengthy interviews with women who were expected to have had emotional difficulty with their abortions. When regret is used in the political realm, it’s usually understood as meaning that a woman who had an attachment to an unborn baby terminated her pregnancy and wishes she could turn back time and make a different decision. Only one of Kimport’s 21 subjects fit this profile at the time she was interviewed. She split the more common reports of distress into three categories: disapproval of a woman’s choice by friends and family, combined with the social stigma; the end of the romantic relationship that had produced the pregnancy; and what she called “head versus heart” conflict. For example, one married mother of three named Julie was 40 when she got pregnant unexpectedly. She’d been hospitalized for severe postpartum depression after the third baby and worried she couldn’t care for her existing children if she got sick again, not to mention that she had to go off her anti-depressants to continue the new pregnancy. Then, too, she and her husband had just gotten through a “difficult patch,” and she was concerned that a fourth child would destabilize them anew.
As Julie put it, “I would have the feeling when I was by myself and thinking about it that I definitely wanted to keep it.” But when she talked through the situation with her husband and others, it seemed like “it wasn’t really the best decision, you know, to keep the baby.”
My third unintended pregnancy was the hardest. The meaning my two girls bring to my life is incalculable, and even in my midforties I already knew that their time with me as children was going to be over in a flash. I was going to miss mothering so much, so why not have another one? I’d have a child at home until I was 62! Or: I’d have a child at home until I was 62.
Then, too, my marriage was fraught—and it was taking a huge amount of energy to try to keep our home somewhat happy, to give the girls the time and attention I wanted to give them, and to continue to do the work that I loved. My husband said he’d go either way, but he insisted that we move to the suburbs if we had a third child. I worried about the suburbs being too far away from my office—when would I see my girls, never mind the new baby I’d have? I worried that I’d lose contact with my large circle of friends in New York, who kept me feeling together and loved, especially when my marriage wasn’t providing much in the way of ballast or affection.
This time, when the technician did the ultrasound at the abortion clinic, I started to sob. I asked to go out to the waiting room; I talked to my husband about whether to proceed; he was sympathetic and again said that it was my choice but that he understood why we were there: This didn’t seem like a good time in our lives to have another child. I agreed with him. A third child would put too much strain on our marriage, I wanted to keep working, and I didn’t want to cheat the children I already had. I composed myself and went through with it.
It’s Pollitt who offers perhaps the most forgiving perspective on my abortion history, and who says something that seemed to resonate with a number of my friends and colleagues. “Women have to control their fertility for 30 years,” she tells me, echoing a line from Pro. “Thirty years is a long time not to make mistakes.”
I had one unplanned pregnancy in each decade of my reproductive life, which isn’t something to be proud of, but I’m not sure it’s anything to be ashamed of, either.
And yet, the judgment still lingers in me too. It’s been less than 50 years since modern feminism began to reshape our rights under the law and our desires and expectations (sexual and otherwise) in relationships. It’s deeply unsettling to defy what Pollitt calls the centuries-old “self-sacrificing, other-oriented, maternal” ideal. What kind of woman are you, Laurie? Shame may be part of the psychic bargain women strike with themselves. I felt compelled to mention my abortions to practically everyone I interviewed for this piece—what was I looking for? Absolution…or punishment?
In an interview with ELLE last month, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said that she thought that the country would “wake up” and realize that the state-by-state restrictions on abortion were untenable and that we “can never go back” to the situation before Roe, when abortions were only “for women who can afford to travel to a neighboring state.” Yet it seems to me that we have gone back to that time; right now poor women are in effect being denied abortions because they can’t afford them, or can’t afford the gas to get to a clinic that is hundreds of miles away—or can’t afford all that and to stay overnight in a hotel to comply with a 24-hour waiting period.
As Ginsburg pointed out in the Hobby Lobby case, an IUD costs as much as a month’s pay for a minimum-wage worker. “It makes no sense as a national policy to promote birth only among poor people,” she asserted. I admire her optimism, but I’m skeptical of change being driven by concern for the plight of poor women. I think of what my father told me years ago, when I was trying to persuade him to vote for a Democratic candidate and used abortion rights as a wedge. He brushed off my argument. “I’m not worried about abortion,” he told me. “If you need one, I’ll be able to get you one.”
If my second abortion is still tinged with sadness, it’s because it marked an end of sorts for me. I don’t have all my life ahead of me anymore; by actuarial charts, I have far less than half. I won’tone day get married, or one day become a mother. My sense of limitless potential is and was closing fast. An embryo or a fetus is all potential.
The president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, Ilyse Hogue, says she believes that for most women, abortion is a “small chapter in the long book of their lives.” What’s most important, she says, isn’t the actual procedure. It isn’t the YouTube video that shows how simple first-trimester abortions are, but what happens afterward: the lives women go on to live. The education, the work, the love and relationships—the marriage you wanted, the children you could raise well. That’s the untold story of abortion, she tells me.
My 14-year-old daughter knows about my first abortion—about a year ago she asked whether I’d ever had one, and I told her because I don’t like to lie to her and I didn’t want her to feel that she couldn’t come to me if she ended up in the same situation. I hope that I can help her prevent that by talking openly with her about birth control and the feelings that can get in the way of using of it. But as I can amply attest, mistakes happen.
My daughter brought up the subject of my abortion again more recently. It is hard to convey how empathic and kind she is. I’m her mother, so you won’t believe me, and I really don’t know where she came from, this child, but there is a goodness that emanates from her now and always will. That doesn’t make her life easy, necessarily; and it doesn’t always make it easy to be around her. She is the Doppler radar of my emotional weather, which, while sometimes utterly annoying—”Honey, just let me be, I’m fine“—at other times is a blessing so profound I tremble to think about it. Once, in the car when she was probably 11, I was complaining about how I couldn’t believe that I was yet again driving everyone around like a veritable chauffeur, dropping kids off here and there, and she said to me, “Oh, Mommy, I know you’re going to apologize for getting mad in a couple of hours.” We were about to pull up outside her dance class. “I know you want us to fulfill our hopes and dreams.”
So we were walking the dog on our street when she mentioned the abortion with R. A shadow must have crossed my face, or perhaps I hesitated, my voice dropped, I don’t know, but she assumed I was feeling bad about what I’d done. (Actually, I was wondering when and how I’d tell her about the other abortion, but I suppose we have time for that.) Her father is T., of course.
“You did the right thing!” she exclaimed. She grabbed my arm, holding me in her bright gaze. “If you hadn’t had the abortion, you wouldn’t have had me.”